Review: One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Title: One Year of Ugly

Author: Caroline Mackenzie

Publication Date: May 14, 2020

Publisher: The Borough Press

Genre: Contemporary

Age Range: NA

Synopsis: After fleeing crumbling, volatile Venezuela, Yola Palacio wants nothing more than to settle into a peaceful new life in Trinidad with her family. And who cares if they’re there illegally—aren’t most of the people on the island? But life for the Palacios is far from quiet—and when Yola’s Aunt Celia dies, the family once again find their lives turned upside down. For Celia had been keeping a very big secret—she owed a LOT of money to a local criminal called Ugly. And without the funds to pay him off, Ugly has the entire family do his bidding until Celia’s debt is settled. What Ugly says, the Palacios do, otherwise the circumstances are too dreadful to imagine.

To say that the year that follows is tumultuous for the Palacios is an understatement. But in the midst of the turmoil appears Roman—Ugly’s distractingly gorgeous right-hand man. And although she knows it’s terrible and quite possibly dangerous, Yola just can’t help but give in to the attraction. Where, though, do Roman’s loyalties lie? And could this wildly inappropriate romance just be the antidote to a terrible year of Ugly?

In a single word, One Year of Ugly was unexpected. Initially, it was just one of the many e-arcs that I requested on Net Galley on a spree one random day, and I’ll be honest, I completely forgot about it until recently. But once I started, I couldn’t stop! It was an unexpectedly empowering, humanizing, and overall hilarious novel.

I’m actually gonna start this review at the end, more specifically the author’s note. For most authors that I haven’t heard of before, and for novels that don’t have many reviews from bipoc bloggers, I do as much research as I can, especially if the stories scream for an own-voices author. At first, I felt reeeeeeally weird about reading One Year of Ugly because as much as I was enjoying it, I saw that it isn’t an own-voices book, although Caroline is born and raised in multiracial Trinidad, she’s visibly White. I felt especially weird because it’s a book about undocumented immigrants. I got through the entire book, still feeling weird, but the author’s note helped a little. Caroline makes it clear that she has spoken with Venezuelans in Trinidad to gather their stories, and that their safety as refugees is the priority. Writing this story in a way that doesn’t hijack Venezuelan experiences, truths, or lives, and taking the care to write this note is much more than I feel other authors offer. And now, on to the review!

Things I liked:

My absolute favorite thing about this story was how honest and gripping and outright funny it was. The story starts with the death of Aunt Celia, who leaves a manuscript of her autobiography for her niece, Yola Palacio, who is also an aspiring writer herself. The bulk of the story is the inner dialogue of Yola who narrates the whirlwind of shit that Aunt Celia leaves for the Palacios, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I might even say that I enjoyed more of the narration than spoken dialogue. Even in death, Aunt Celia is one hell of a character, and it’s such an interesting parallel as we read about Celia through Yola. The characters really were at the heart of this story and they were all such full personalities, complete with a dark, bleak sense of humor that I couldn’t resist.

Another thing that I liked was that at its heart, One Year of Ugly is a love story. It’s about the familial love between the Palacios (Yola and her dad are so cute they make me wanna cry), the forbidden love between Yola and Roman, and the adopted love they share for their new home in Trinidad, along with some new friends they make along the way. Getting caught up with local criminal Ugly (yes, that is his chosen name), the Palacios are forced to carry on Aunt Celia’s debt by acting as a halfway house for other Venezuelan immigrants. While the family is reluctant at first (and honestly, throughout most of it), they find ways of making it work. Sure, at first it’s because they’re being blackmailed, but I saw so many similarities between the Palacios and my own mixed immigrant family, and Yola narrates how their lives change and how their own resilience has prepared them. But like all good things, there is also the bad and the ugly.

Things I Didn’t Like:

As much as I love the Palacios and their story as undocumented immigrants themselves, I couldn’t help but find similarities to my family. For immigrants, resilience is a survival mechanism and you can clearly see it in the Palacios. However, this isn’t what I disliked, but it was that the novel seemed to romanticize the struggle sometimes. Behind the humor and the undeniably charming stubbornness of the family, there was pain and a world of self-inflicted assimilation. This isn’t to say that it didn’t seem realistic at all; I couldn’t say what is realistic for a Venezuelan family of immigrants in Trinidad. I just think that they were really lucky to get a fairly happy ending.

To sum it all up, I personally loved reading One Year of Ugly. It was enjoyable and light-hearted while also leaving necessary space for the weight of what being an undocumented immigrant means for some people. Often times the reality is ugly, and instead of shying away from it, Caroline Mackenzie takes the ugly and literally humanizes it, giving me different perspectives to consider, especially living in the “land of the free” that we call Ameri(k)a.

If you’d like to get to know the Palacios, you can find One Year of Ugly at the following links and add it on Goodreads.

Book Depository | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble

And for a little good/bad/ugly pun, I leave you with this: shout out to the people that don’t know what the opposite of in is 🙂

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